Sunday, April 9, 2017

Martin Scorcese's "Silence:" A Meditation on the Mysteries of the Human Spirit



Silence
a film by Martin Scorsese
starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver,
Tadanobu Asana, Ciaran Hinds, Issey Ogata, and Liam Neeson.
(rel. in U.S. 12/23/16)(avail. Netflix streaming)
running time: 2hrs 41 minutes

Inigo Lopez de Loyola (1491-1556) was a courtier, a soldier, and a dandy, before devoting his life to asceticism and God. At age 30 a cannon ball ended his military career and Loyola embarked on a religious education. He began with an ascetic regimen in a cave in Catalan that later formed the fundamentals of his Spiritual Exercises. After a brief visit to the Holy Land, Loyola completed a course of primary studies in Barcelona, followed by 10 years of latin and theological studies in Madrid. He received a Masters Degree from the University of Paris in 1534, and there, with a group of six companions, he founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit order). At Montmartre they took a vow of poverty and chastity and promised obedience to the pope. Two of these co-founding Jesuits in Paris were Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and Simao Rodriquez (1510-1579).


The Jesuits tried to convert Japan to Christianity, but they failed utterly. In 1549 Francis Xavier was the first missionary on the islands and he could not have had much of an impact. Xavier and his three companion missionaries, arriving with Portuguese merchants, did not speak the language. They and their lone Japanese guide (Anjiro) were granted only limited access to the population, and by 1551 Xavier departed. He made a last voyage from Gao (India) to Shangchuan Island (SE China), accompanied by a young Jesuit student, Alvara Ferreira. And there he died.

Shusaku Endo's novel of historical fiction (publ. 1966) is set nearly a century after Francis Xavier's initial visit. Martin Scorcese's film adaptation is populated by characters whose names evoke this founding Jesuit generation.

The film opens in 1639, at St. Paul's college in Macao, where an Italian Jesuit priest receives word that a missionary in Japan, father Cristovao Ferreira, had publicly abandoned and renounced his faith under torture. Two former pupils of Ferreira, Sebastian Rodriguez and Francisco Garupe, are shocked and set off to find him.

Nagasaki harbor
It was a dangerous mission. A lot had changed since Francis Xavier initiated missionary work in Japan 90 years before. The missionaries found brief success. In 1562 they succeeded in converting a feudal lord, Omura Sumitada, whose domain included the harbor at Nagasaki. With Portuguese guns and support Sumitada grew powerful and helped to destroy Buddhist shrines and nominally convert much of the population of western Kyushu to Catholicism. By 1570 there were 20 Catholic missionaries in Japan. By 1580, they say, there were 200 churches serving 150,000 Catholics. But success was short-lived. By 1587 Sumitada was dead of tuberculosis, Japan was being consolidated under Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1591), and Christian missionaries were banished from Kyushu. In Nagasaki, on February 5, 1597, 25 Christians were publicly crucified, including five Franciscan missionaries and three Japanese priests. By 1620 the Tokugawa Shogunate banned Christianity from the Islands altogether, and persecutions continued. 205 Christian missionaries and converts were executed for their faith between 1617 and 1632. The remnant of Christianity went underground.
"Martyrs of Nagasaki" (1628 engraving/artist unknown)
In the film, fathers Rodriguez and Garupe are guided by Kichijro, an alcoholic exiled Japanese fisherman whom they find in a Macao back alley. Kichjiro secures passage on a merchant ship heading to, perhaps Nagasaki, and he leads the priests to a desolate seaside village. There they find an underground Christian community that welcomes them like they are fresh from an audience with the Messiah. 

The villagers, as well as Rodriguez and Garupe, endure increasing hardships as the Shogunate closes in on them. There is torture, anxiety, fear, crucifixions in the ocean, hanging upside down over a pit of excrement with a small incision in your neck, drownings, and through it all a great stubbornness not to renounce faith. It's an entirely unreasonable stubbornness; like those early Christians were stubborn in the Forum. It's a mystery of faith why these simple seaside villagers would endure such tortures and pressures rather than abjure. But it's a recognizable stubbornness. "No one should interfere with another man's spirit," says one. 

The demand of the state, led by a wise and majesterial inquisitor, played by Issey Ogata, is so simple: step on the fumie, a copper plate with an image of Christ engraved on it. The Inquisitor went out of his way to make it easy for them: they did not have to say anything. A mere formality, suggests the Inquisitor; it doesn't have to mean anything.  The Inquisitor did not seek to humiliate, he only sought the simple act of stepping on the fumie. Why does it mean so much? 

Kichjiro guides the priests, he orients them in the land, keeps them hidden, translates for them, and ultimately betrays them. He is the Judas figure in the story. He is tormented by guilt. He stepped on the fumi, and he did so repeatedly. His weakness in accepting the gesture of stepping on the fumi, racks his conscience. The stubbornness and resolve of his family who did not haunts him. He paid the price of recanting in remorse, guilt, and shame--and yet he, more than perhaps anyone--never lost faith. He stepped on the fumi, he renounced but he never could shake his faith. 

And there is a mystery of what that faith is that makes Kichjiro suffer so. What does Kichjiro believe? What did these simple villagers taught by priests who did not share their language believe? What did they grasp about Christian culture, much less dogma? What was this "faith" to which they clung so fiercely? As Paul Elie points out in a fine essay in the New York Times, when Rodrigues finally meets Ferreira, he says: "The converts? . . .  "They are breakaway Buddhists; . . . they worship the 'Sun of God,' not the Son of God. Those martyrs, dying upside down in the pit? They didn’t die for Christ, he tells Rodrigues, they died for you."

But I'm not so sure. They died for the human spirit, a mysterious thing. 

Ferreira went native. He renounced under torture and made his peace with it. He took on a Japanese wife and children. He continued to study and contribute to Japanese culture by translating scientific tests (am I remembering that right?) Rodrigues, too, finally succumbs to the Inquisitor. He makes his peace and becomes an administrator for the Shogunate, inspecting trade items from the Dutch East India Company for Christian iconography. Yet, there is doubt, the suspicion that both Ferreira and Rodriguez continue to adhere to their faith. 

Silence cost $40 million to produce. Through mid March 2017 it has earned just $16 million. Like Scorcese's 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, the investors of this film will have a hard time recouping their investment. It's an ill deserved fate for this beautiful and thoughtful film.  

So stream it, buy it, get it from your library, or catch in a theater if you can, but take a look at Silence. 

St. Pierre de Montmartre, Paris
where Jesuit order began



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